Man as Witch: Male Witches in Central Europe by Rolf Schulte Witchcraft and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe edited by Alison Rowlands
Article first published online: 22 JUL 2011
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Gender & History
Volume 23, Issue 2, pages 450–454, August 2011
How to Cite
KENT, E. J. (2011), Man as Witch: Male Witches in Central Europe by Rolf Schulte Witchcraft and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe edited by Alison Rowlands. Gender & History, 23: 450–454. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-0424.2011.01648_6.x
- Issue published online: 22 JUL 2011
- Article first published online: 22 JUL 2011
Man as Witch: Male Witches in Central Europe ( Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan , 2009 ), pp. 256 . ISBN 978 0230537026 . AlisonRowlands ( ed .), Witchcraft and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe ( Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan , 2009 ), pp. 256 . ISBN 978 0230553293 .,
These two books examine men accused of witchcraft, and re-evaluate the role of gender as a primary category of analysis for the early modern European witch hunts. Alison Rowlands has edited a collection of ten essays covering western and central Europe. Rolf Schulte, a contributor to Rowlands's volume, has produced an updated monograph in English, based on his German publication (2000) on male witches within the Holy Roman Empire. Both books are a reaction to the role of men in witchcraft trials being identified with that of persecutor, to research largely oblivious to men ‘as accused and executed victims’ and ‘gender analysis concerned with associating women with witch trials’ (Schulte, p. 2). None of these authors seeks to overturn the significance of the feminine majority among early modern witches, rather they emphasise that the gendering of witchcraft was more complex than historians have considered to date.
These works range over a great deal of historiographical and geographic territory, but share a number of common concerns. A central question is what exactly constituted ‘male witchcraft’. Rowlands raises this in her introduction, noting that the essayists define it as maleficium. These charges of maleficium, though, came in many different guises: they arose out of healing or cunning magic, out of veterinary, ecclesiastical or natural magic, out of lycanthropy, wealth acquisition, family feuds; from elite sorcery and plebeian charming. Charges of ‘male witchcraft’ describe magical practices bound up with the life stories of the men accused in ways that produce categorical slippage. Most of the authors acknowledge that early modern trial records use a plethora of terms to describe masculine criminal magic; that judicial records often align poorly with demonological categorisations; that ideas of beneficent and malefic male witchcraft differed in elite and popular estimations, between denominations, and across regions. Such diversity shows masculine magical typologies as messy, overlapping and highly contextually specific: there was no pan-European ‘masculine magic’ that can be neatly separated from ‘feminine’ magic.
Another major conclusion from all these works is that men cannot be assumed to have been accused only during witch ‘panics’. Men were accused in this context, but gender ratios across all types of trials could vary considerably: a ‘minority’ of men accused might be 10 per cent or 48 per cent (Schulte, p. 67). In some regions, men formed the majority of accused (Carinthia 68 per cent), in some trials men were a majority (‘Sorcerer Jack’ trials in Salzburg 70 per cent). The notion that mass trials undermined the female witch stereotype, so allegations spread to those not usually accused, is shown here to be an unsubtle oversimplification. Similarly, men were not simply implicated in witchcraft accusations made initially against women. Family links to accused witches could be significant but were also subject to considerable variation. Briggs identified such links as significant in Lorraine; Voltmer thought not in the Rhine–Meuse trials; Schulte found familial links had some significance in Holstein, but virtually none in Carinthia.
All of the works reviewed here stressed that men from all walks of life were accused of witchcraft: vagrants and beggars, settled men of the towns, farmers and peasants, and men from administrative elites. Most of the authors suggest that men of lower social status were more vulnerable: for example, Schulte found that a ‘statistically relevant’ (Schulte, p. 247) number of male witches were socially disadvantaged men, excluded in some fashion from social life. But individual circumstances could vary greatly. In Eichstätt, men accused of witchcraft tended to be ‘married, middle-class and middle aged’ (Rowlands, p. 113). In Bamberg, the ‘highest social class, using allegations of witchcraft as one of their weapons’ led to ‘the replacement of one entire group of leading men with another’ (Rowlands, p. 61).
Male witches, like their female counterparts, were prosecuted within ‘judicial apparatus … exclusively in the hands of men’ (Rowlands, p. 20). A good number of the authors emphasised the need for further research on the witch hunters. Julian Goodare noted that Scottish witch hunters were problematic characters, in debt, or quarrelsome individuals, who used witch hunting to vindicate themselves within their communities; elite men might be ‘spurred into witch hunting’ from witchcraft threats to themselves or their estate, or might cast themselves as saviours extirpating a diabolic threat. Gaskill examined the witch hunters Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne and cautioned against interpretive frameworks focusing on issues of sexuality. If Hopkins and Stearne were driven by ‘sexual prurience or perversion, it cannot be known, and should not be assumed’ (Rowlands, p. 183). Sexuality, he contends, might not be relevant either to their witch hunting or their masculinity. More broadly, as Briggs observes, the ‘male domination of all forms of institutional and repressive power’ (Rowlands, p. 38) needs to be assessed in relation to gendered power dynamics between men, as well as between women and men.
Rowlands raises the issue of understanding the way ‘male witches were perceived to have contravened norms of masculine behaviour’ (Rowlands, p. 17). Robin Briggs, however, questions the importance of ‘deviant behaviour that violated masculine roles’ (Rowlands, p. 32), arguing the behaviour attributed to male witches ‘reflected their status as witches much more than it did their gender’ (Rowlands, p. 50). Briggs stressed the intersection between ‘the social world that made quarrels much likelier with some people than others, and the imaginary world of witch beliefs’ (Rowlands, p. 39). Malcolm Gaskill argues that ‘male witches were wicked because they gave themselves to the Devil’ (Rowlands, p. 184). Gender was ‘relevant to their public censure less because they aped female values than because the failed to measure up to male ones’, but ‘ultimately … male witches were witches’ (Rowlands, p. 184).
Rita Voltmer raises intriguing possibilities. Voltmer challenges Midelfort's suggestion that the accusation of ‘non-stereotypical’ witches destabilised witch hunting, producing a ‘crisis of confidence’ (Rowlands, p. 75) particularly as high-ranking individuals were drawn into trials. Voltmer argues that evidence tortured from high-ranking men supported the witch hunters’ mission, producing evidence from ‘strong minded’ men, rather than ‘old, weak-minded women’. The identification of elite men as ‘kings of the sabbath’ underscored the threat of the witches’ sect (Rowlands, p. 83). Exploring the notion of the ‘dual-gendered’ Sabbat (Rowlands, p. 93), Voltmer points to masculine narratives that structured diabolic witchcraft. Like Voltmer, Schulte and Goodacre identified ‘authority-bearing’ (Rowlands, p. 189) male witches. While women formed the mass of Satan's agents, his lieutenants, and the Devil himself, were male. Key gender hierarchies were preserved, not inverted, within the patriarchal narratives that structured accounts of diabolic witchcraft, and become visible when male witches are considered as ‘real’ witches.
Jonathan Durrant examines witch trials at Eichstätt, which produced only a small number of male witches (12 per cent), arguing that ‘gender was not significant in popular conceptions of the witch’ (Rowlands, p. 101). In Eichstätt, more men were denounced than were prosecuted: had all been prosecuted, these would have been male-dominated trials. Durrant argues this ‘process of selection’ by the witch commissioners, influenced by their ‘learned misogyny’, accounts for the female majority, and that the gender of the witch was imposed ‘from above’ (Rowlands, pp. 106, 117). Interestingly, Schulte identified a similar dynamic, but working in reverse. In Carinthia, male suspects denounced large numbers of women, but in a ‘gender-specific selection process’ (Schulte, p. 189) many were not charged by the courts. Schulte also found denunciations of people ‘from higher social groups were not followed up with charges’ (Schulte, p. 230). While I am not convinced by Durrant's conclusion that the gender of the witch was entirely the product of elite jurists, the idea that courts applied ‘selection’ processes to those denounced, and the conditions which prompted such culling, requires further investigation.
Malcolm Gaskill and Willem de Blécourt make particularly useful suggestions for future research. In his essay on the East Anglian trials in England, Gaskill suggests a ‘definitional axis’ that is ‘not just female–male, but human–beast’ (Rowlands, p. 178). Investigating the intersection of charges of lycanthropy and male witchcraft, de Blécourt suggests (cautiously) that the human–beast ‘definitional axis’ could be classified as a ‘third gender’ (Rowlands, p. 192), where humans moved into the animal realm. These are fascinating insights and suggest the importance of examining the zoomorphic aspects of early modern witchcraft. In particular, where aspects of sexuality appear absent from cases of male witchcraft, ‘men could become animalised’ (Rowlands, p. 208) to encode ideas of deviant sexuality. The animalisation of witches, through metamorphoses, or the English notion of the animal familiar, has only been dealt with in a limited fashion. Further research along these lines will pay significant interpretive dividends.
Sarah Ferber discusses possession, a phenomenon related to, but not synonymous with, early modern witchcraft. Examining two rare cases of adult male possession, Ferber concludes these male possessed drew important psychological authentication from cases of female possession, but that the phenomena itself ‘transformed’ when it moved from female to male. Ferber concludes that these two stories of masculine possession ‘might take us back to the cultural silences around the idea of the masculine as the human generic’ (Rowlands, p. 233). Here Ferber provides a clue to understanding Schulte's finding that concepts of masculinity were ‘less frequently verbalised’ (Schulte, p. 147) in demonologies, when the cultural agency of masculinity was most certainly present. Ferber alerts us to the fact that masculine normativity produces textual invisibility, and operates frequently in subterranean fashion, structuring social and cultural life via underlying, unspoken assumptions. Historians need to develop the methodological acuity to decode the ‘cultural silences’ that scaffolded masculinity.
Schulte's book provides the first major statistical study of male witches available in English. From a study of demonologists and demonologies, Schulte identifies the key role of denomination, arguing that the Catholic ‘witch paradigm’, which stressed the ‘collective element’ of the Witches’ Sabbat, produced greater scope for the inclusion of men in witch trials (Schulte, p. 149). The Lutheran/Protestant witch paradigm largely preserved the identification of witchcraft with women. Schulte understands male witches as ‘feminised men’, whose ‘personality features were considered feminine’ (Schulte, p. 148). Schulte raises the important question of whether the prosecution of male witches served as a means of ‘asserting and publicising’ (Schulte, p. 249) new masculine gender ideals. Schulte usefully appropriates, and redefines, the concept of ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ witches. Primary male witches are those accused at the ‘beginning of trial series or in an individual trial’; secondary male witches were not necessarily ‘ancillary witches’, but ‘were victims of denunciations in a current trial’ (Schulte, p. 189).
Schulte uses a multi-relational explanatory model for the male-dominated witch trials in Carinthia. After 1630, in this Austrian territory, about 68 per cent of witch trials targeted men. Arguing against ‘monocausal explanations’ (Schulte, p. 248), Schulte accounts for this male majority through a variety of factors. The courts applied a Catholic demonological paradigm, with its emphasis on collectivity, targeted socially disadvantaged beggars, and were supported by the ‘integrated estates’ (Schulte, p. 241) in a society experiencing economic downturn and a restriction of material resources. Beggars, already reputed to have magical skills, and travelling in loosely organised groups searching for work, could be ‘stylised’ (Schulte, p. 240) as an organised conspiracy and represented as a secret society of demonic witches. Established persecutory practices, including torture and denunciation, had been honed against the Waldensian heresy, and were transferred from one masculine out-group to another. How transferrable this model is to other witch trials remains to be seen, but Schulte clearly demonstrates that the persecution of male witches was created by multiple, interacting factors. Schulte offers the prospect for engaging with male witchcraft as an historical phenomenon that was complex and dynamic, rather than derivative and static.
A number of the authors examine masculinity through feminisation. I remain suspicious of this model. It is a methodological shortcut that appears reasonable due to our current lack of knowledge of the cultural conditions of early modern masculinity. Once we are able better to interrogate the ‘cultural silences’ surrounding masculinity, I think we will be able describe deviant men without making them fictive women. The tendency of authors in Rowlands's collection to identify only with femaleness has produced some sour notes from some authors which will hamper the reception of their work by gender scholars. Durrant does his essay no favours when accusing gender scholars of ‘a tendency to seek the lowest common denominator’, which can be ‘forced into shocking stereotypes’ (Rowlands, p.102); Oscar Di Simplico writes that ‘my work on witchcraft … has persuaded me that witchcraft beliefs … were not first and foremost “about” gender’ (Rowlands, p. 121), then examines a set of witch trials in which 99.14 per cent of those accused were female. The study of male witches is important because they are a group of men visible as gendered historical actors: they are clearly differentiated from the majority of their co-accused on account of their gender. For several decades now, the study of witchcraft has been dominated by a search for those pan-European similarities which explain the witch and her femaleness. Difference has been explained away rather than integrated. These two books suggest that a consideration of difference may be in order: they offer the prospect of a more finely grained account of gender and witchcraft in early modern Europe.